Adventure Kokoda

The Spirit of Kokoda

The Spirit of Kokoda has been dormant for far too long

Charlie Lynn

Today, the jungle has reclaimed the battle sites which are etched in the minds of our ageing Diggers - The Golden Staircase, Deniki, Isurava, Eora Creek, Templeton's Crossing, Myola, Brigade Hill, Iorabaiwa and Imita Ridge.

Along the Kokoda Trail today rusting armaments, shallow graves, empty weapon pits, spent ammunition cartridges are haunting reminders of a desperate campaign fought on our very doorstep during the darkest days of the war in the Pacific just over 60 years ago.

Unfortunately our young Australians are blissfully ignorant of the Kokoda campaign and other heroic Australian battles fought in defence of our homeland. The Darwin bombing raids, the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, Milne Bay, Buna, Gona, Sananada, Shaggy Ridge, Lae, Finchafen to name a but a few.

The stories of our coastwatchers, our commando's, our airmen and our sailors are yet to be told in a form that allows their deeds, their sacrifices and their ultimate victories to be learned in a meaningful way in our education systems.

One can only wonder at the reasons for the neglect of our Australian campaigns in the defence of our homeland by successive Australian governments since the end of the Second World War.

It may well be because of the neglect of our defence responsibilities by our political leaders between the two World Wars. History has recorded that it was this neglect that contributed to our parlous military state at the time the Japanese were goaded into the Pacific war by the machiavellian British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill - certainly no friend of Australia's in our hour of greatest need.

It's not as if our political leaders were not aware of the gathering of the storm clouds of war in our region. General Sturdee warned in 1933 that Japan would pose the major threat to Australian security.

He predicted:

the Japanese would act quickly, they would all be regulars, fully trained and equipped for the operations, and fanatics who like dying in battle, whilst our troops would consist mainly of civilians, hastily thrown together on mobilisation, with very little training, short of artillery and possibly of gun ammunition."1

In 1939 Lieutenant Governor of New Guinea Hubert Murray wrote to his granddaughter, Marie Pinner, with some cynicism about our defence preparations for Port Moresby:

We are up to our neck in preparation for a Japanese invasion. They have worked out an elaborate Defence Scheme which we have to put into force. It is a fine piece of work, but has little relation to reality. For instance one of the Government Secretary's duties is to look after the carrier pigeons, and an anticipated advance on Kokoda from Buna is to be opposed by a Company of Infantry with machine guns."2

The Head of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, Professor David Horner wrote in his book 'Crisis of Command':

It is now generally agreed that the Australian defence policy between the wars and until the fall of Singapore was, at the best, naively optimistic, and at the worst, some might say, close to treason."

While our political leaders certainly neglected their national duty of care to Australia at that time our Diggers answered the call - and the challenge!

When the Japanese entered the Pacific War on 7 December 1941 with the bombing of the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour they swept unchecked down through Asia and the Pacific.

They defeated the American forces in the Phillipines, the British and Australian forces in Singapore and Malaya and the Dutch in what is now Indonesia. They were well trained, battle hardened, fanatical, and superior in manpower, weapons and equipment. They were deemed to be invincible.

Lex MacAulay:

The Japanese South Seas Island force was assigned to capture Port Moresby. It comprised 13,000 of Japan's finest troops and was commanded by Major General Horii Tomitaro. They were the elite of the Japanese army and were well blooded in battle. But even more important was the Japanese psyche which had been conditioned by a number of factors over generations. The first was their State religion, Shinto, which inculcated respect for the Emperor, the Head of the Japanese family, and respect for one's ancestors. All Japanese authorities - religious, educational, entertainment and the media - ceaselessly indoctrinated the population with the divinity of the Emperor and the divine nature of Japan's expansionist role. The second was the fact that they lived in a land of earthquakes and volcanoes. They were therefore fatalistic and continually reminded of the need to meet death in a fitting manner. Austerity was praised and linked to the warrior spirit: 'The samurai displays a toothpick even when he has not eaten.' And lastly, Japan's military successes, ancient and modern, were credited to offensive spirit. Japanese folklore contained many examples of heroic victory by trickery, which negated an opponent's strength. These factors, particularly belief in a divine mission, combined to result in brutality to populations and prisoners in occupied lands."3

The 144th Japanese South Seas Islands Regiment which had landed in Buna and Gona had brutally massacred Australian diggers who had earlier surrendered at Tol Plantation on Rabaul.

Raymond Paull (Retreat from Kokoda):

The unexpected appearance of the Japanese, and their rapid advance inland, trapped many of the Europeans at the hospitals, missions and plantations on the Buna coast. Few succeeded in eluding the enemy and crossing the mountains to the south coast. Lieutenant Louis austin and an Anglican mission party - Miss Margaret Branchley, Miss Lilian Lashman, the Reverend Henry Holland, the Reverend Vivian Hedlich, Mr John Duffill, two half-caste mission workers, Louise Artango and Anthony Gore, and Gore's six-year-old-son - travelling from Ioma to Tufi, were betrayed to the Japanese by the natives of Perembata village. At Buna on 12th August, outside the headquarters of the Sasebo No. 5 Special Naval Landing Party, the entire party was beheaded one by one with the sword - the boy last of all.

Our Diggers were under no illusion of the fate awaiting their families back home if they didn't stop the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail.

Our regular forces were being rushed back from Europe and the Middle East where they had reinforced their legendary Anzac fighting reputation at Tobruk, El Alamein, Greece, Crete and in the Western Desert.

In the meantime the defence of our homeland was left to young inexperienced militia men - some as young as 16 years of age had been hurriedly recruited, given the most basic of training then dispatched to New Guinea to hold the Japanese advance until our regulars from the AIF could reinforce them. These were the darkest and most desperate days in our history.

Soldier-poet, Sapper Bert Beros, captured the emotion of their final farewells in a poem 'A Soldiers Farewell to his Son.'

I stand and watch you, little son,
Your bosom's rise and fall,
An old rag dog beside your cheek,
A gayly coloured ball.
Your curly hair is ruffled as you
Rest there fast asleep,
And silently I tip-toe in
To have one last long peep.

I come to say farewell to you,
My little snowy son.
And as I do I hope that you will
Never slope a gun,
Or hear dive-bombers and
Their dreadful whining roar,
Or see or feel their loads of death
As overhead they soar.

I trust that you will never need
To go abroad to fight,
Or learn the awful lesson soon
That might to some is right,
Or see your cobbers blown to scraps
Or die a lingering death,
with vapours foul and filthy
When the blood-flow chokes the breath.

I hope that you will never know
The dangers of the sea.
And that is why I leave you now
To hold your liberty,
To slay the demon War God
I must leave you for a while
In mother's care - till stars again
From peaceful heaven smile.

Your mother is your daddy now,
To guard your little ways,
Yet ever I'll be thinking of you both
In future days.
I must give up your tender years,
The joys I'll sorely miss,
My little man, farewell, so long,
I leave you with a kiss.

Frank Devine:

These young men of the 39th Militia Battalion were destined to be enshrined in our military history in the same light as the 300 Spartans who held the pass at Thermopylae against thousands of invading Persians two and half thousand years ago. Our Thermopylae was to be Isurava where 450 of our young bravehearts with an average age of 18� years - fought against an advancing Japanese force for seven weeks in July and August 1942, and saved Australia from likely enemy occupation. To our great shame our Spartans are almost totally unremembered and unhonoured to this day."4

Mateship: (Kingsbury/Avery)

Courage: (McCallum, Kingsbury, Bear)

Sacrifice: (Crawford/Metson)

Endurance: (Bear/Phil Rhoden/2/27th Bn/Buckler)

The men of Kokoda fought a terrible battle against overwhelming odds - and yet they were not overwhelmed.

They suffered huge casualties at Isurava and the fighting back through Templeton's Crossing, Mission Ridge, and Brigade Hill.

They fought in the worst conditions imaginable - the climate and the incredibly difficult terrain adding to their burden.

Ultimately they fought the enemy to a standstill and saw him turn at Ioribaiwa and retreat back over the Kokoda Track.

Extraordinarily disciplined - and well led - their efforts were not initially understood and appreciated by the higher command. But the verdict of history and of the Australian people is different.

History records that these men made possible a tremendous victory. They stopped a downward thrust that - if successful - would have exposed the entire Australian mainland to invasion. So significant was their achievement that the historians are now unanimous in agreeing that the battles of the Kokoda Trail saw the turning of the tide - a tide that could well have engulfed a young nation.

Their's was a victory - not only of the jungle battlefield - but a victory of sacrifice and selflessness, a victory of mateship, a victory of courage, a victory of endurance, a victory over adversity - and a victory even of humour - but above all a victory of their indomitable spirit.

That spirit was captured by wartime correspondent, Osmar White:

The Japanese were infiltrating. Their patrols had penetrated far into the hills on the flanks of the trail positions. Indeed, they ignored the positions we were anxious to defend, and were striking out boldly into the trailless forest of the hills. Our men were not prepared for such tactics. The bulk of them were troops trained for desert warfare. They were more than half afraid of the country. you could see that in their movements, in their whole attitude. They were far more afraid of the country than the Japanese. They were continually worried by the idea of being 'cut off'. To their minds, being cut off meant that one must wander in the jungle, wander in the hills, wander in the valleys - up and down and up and down those heartbreaking razorbacks, until one died of hunger or exhaustion. Machine-gun fire became more intense as we went on. Most of it was on the flanks, but some was dead ahead and we heard one or two bursts directly behind us. Occasionally there would be the dull, echoing crash of an exploding mortar bomb. Absolutely nothing could be seen. It was uncanny. The bullets made a strange noise among the leaves - a low deadly whispering. The whispering could be heard before the rattle of the discharge.

The whole battle had become a blind groping in a tangle of growth. One party came in with a story of having travelled for miles just under the crest of a steep ridge, parallel with a party of Japanese. No one on either side was willing to show his head against the skyline for a shot, so they fought it out by tossing grenades at one another over the crest of a steep ridge. The Mills grenade won. It had real, lethal quality. The Japanese were using a light grenade. One man on the patrol had his teeth knocked out by a Japanese grenade striking him in the mouth. It fell to his feet and exploded. All he suffered in addition to loss of teeth was a peppering of shrapnel in one thigh. It was seldom that anyone got a glimpse of the enemy. Most of the wounded were very indignant about it. I must have heard the remark 'You can't see the little bastards!' hundreds of times in the course of a day. Some of the men said it with tears in their eyes and clenched fists. They were humiliated beyond endurance by the fact that they had been put out of action before even seeing a Japanese.

At Eora I saw a 20 year old redheaded boy with shrapnel in his stomach. He kept muttering to himself about not being able to see the blasted Japs. When Eora was to be evacuated, he knew he had very little chance of being shifted back up the line. He called to me, confidentially: "Hey dig, bend down a minute. Listen . I think us blokes are going to be left when they pull out. Will you do us a favour? Scrounge us a tommy gun from somewhere will you?"

It was not bravado. You could see that by looking in his eyes. He just wanted to see a Jap before he died. That was all. Such things should have been appalling. They were not appalling. One accepted them calmly. This was jungle war - the most merciless war of all. I was convinced for all time of the dignity and nobility of common men.

I was convinced for all time that common men have a pure and shining courage when they fight for what they believe to be a just and shining cause.

That which was fine in these men outweighed and made trivial all that was horrible in their plight. I cannot explain it except to say that they were at all times cheerful and helped one another. They never gave up the fight. They never admitted defeat. They never asked for help.

I felt proud to be of their race and cause, bitterly ashamed to be so nagged by the trivial ills of my own flesh. I wondered if all men, when they had endured so much that exhausted nerves would no longer give response, were creatures of the spirit, eternal and indestructible as stars."

In linking the spirit of Anzac with the spirit of Kokoda it has been said that:

'Anzac created a nation, but Kokoda saved a nation'.

Bibliography

1Crisis of Command by David Horner
2The Kokoda Trail by Stuart Hawthorne
3To the Bitter End by Lex Macauley
4The Australian Thermopylae , Frank Devine, The Australian, 22 April 1992